Personal Journeys: The last act

After 43 years at Dante’s Down the Hatch, 77-year-old Atlanta icon prepares for uncharted waters.

UPDATE: Dante Stephensen, founder of iconic Atlanta nightspot Dante’s Down the Hatch, dies

Dante Stephensen grips a mug of coffee in one hand and a straw-colored sack in the other as he takes his stage, inside the Buckhead landmark that bears his name. He’s an impish man, slightly ruffled in a checked shirt and worn tan slacks. His hair and mustache are white, grandfatherly. He moves lightly for a man of 77.

Dante has performed this scene two to three times a week for over four decades. All that really changes is the audience. Over the years, thousands have stepped into Dante’s world and partaken in a ritual unlike any other in Atlanta.

Tonight, seven 20-somethings wait patiently at the u-shaped booth. Each has paid $28 to share the exquisite moment. Soon the chocolate fondue will arrive.

“What you’re getting tonight is a treasure,” Dante tells his attentive audience. “It’s not on the market.”

Dante sits at the end of the table — the group captive in the booth. He peppers them with questions about what they do, how they met their spouses and what binds them as a group.

He listens and talks, and then talks some more.

Like everything at Dante’s Down the Hatch, the chocolate ritual is attended by more than a hint of theater. The place is a grand whimsical set — featuring a rigged sailing ship at its heart — lit by candle flicker and dim lights. It is also a travelogue, a collection of treasures from around the world assembled in an order only Dante can fully comprehend. With the Disney-like setting, complete with crocodile and pirate, Dante seeks to transport his visitors to a faraway and untroubled place.

These nightly voyages sustain Dante and satisfy his compulsion to perform. But these days, even as he diverts and entertains his listeners, Dante submerges a hard reality: his flights of fancy are coming to an end.

After 43 years, the final curtain call will come at the end of July.

Like so much else in Atlanta, Dante's Down the Hatch is succumbing to developers who have grander plans for his quirky island on Peachtree Road. Atlanta will certainly move on, but can Dante?

2 Mayor of Underground

I first met Dante 41 years ago. It was 1972 and the Georgia Legislature, in a brief moment of wisdom, lowered the drinking age to 18, just in time for my birthday. At the relatively new Underground Atlanta, clubs like the Mad Hatter responded by offering draft beer for a penny a glass.

On weekends, suburban guys like me, mulleted and looking for action, loaded our Camaros, Mustangs and Firebirds to make the long trek down Peachtree Street. (I’m horrified at the idea of my sons doing any such thing now.)

Driving Dad’s massive Lincoln one night, I ventured to the old Down the Hatch with my high school sweetheart, Holly. I wore some plaid suit with an astonishingly wide tie; Holly wore a lovely blue cocktail dress.

As we sipped hurricanes and awaited our pots of hot oil, Dante greeted us warmly, asking about our plans for life and one another. He seemed to genuinely care.

I think it was the first time I remember being treated as an adult. The memory endures.

The sad collection of stores and restaurants that comprise today’s Underground offers few hints of its heyday. Then, it was Bourbon Street with a hard top, filled with jazz clubs, restaurants and cool boutiques.

Dante’s was its centerpiece. Longtime Atlantans carry memories of proposals and prom nights at Dante’s set to a Paul Mitchell Trio soundtrack.

Even today, Dante’s is a time machine to Hotlanta, an era long ago when the Falcons and Braves represented Atlanta’s big-city aspirations. It was a time when the Ramblin’ Raft Race filled the Chattahoochee River with drunken revelry and Burt Reynolds ran a hot club at the Omni.

Hotlanta has chilled, but Dante abides.

At least for now.

Dante was in his early 30s when he first descended to Lower Alabama Street and succumbed to the charm of a section of the city that had been sealed in the 1920s by the bridges and viaducts constructed to ease the city’s eternal traffic congestion.

About 12 acres of the old central city were submerged like the ruins of ancient Pompeii; marble carvings, brickwork, archways and gas streetlamps all preserved as if suspended in time. After snapping up most of the buildings, investors opened Underground Atlanta as an entertainment district in 1968.

A few months later, a girl Dante had met through the Atlanta Ski Club — the of its time — suggested they head downtown to take a look. Only a few tenants were open — Ruby Reds with its Dixieland bands and Muhlenbrink’s featuring the legendary Piano Red, who later counted among his fans Gregg Alman and the Rolling Stones.

A seed was planted.

Dante was ripe for a change. He had come to Atlanta a few years earlier to work with a former roommate at Carleton College in Minnesota. It was a startup that manufactured inexpensive shoes. He was married when he arrived, but divorced in 1966. “It was friendly,” he said of the divorce one recent night at the restaurant. “Two cats; we each got one.”

He had been a Navy Seal and had spent much of his time after college wandering the world. He had come to realize that he wasn’t cut out for a 9-to-5 job.

As he and his date prowled the ancient streets that night, Dante began to see his future. “Something was triggered in me,” Dante recalls. “I wanted to be a part of that; to play some sort of a role in it.

“I wanted to come up with a concept — I was thinking of a place that would be romantic — a place where you would get engaged.”

He also was inspired by the old Atlanta Playboy Club a few blocks from Underground. In addition to the obvious attractions, it offered what Dante calls “intellectual jazz.” That’s where Dante first heard the Paul Mitchell Trio, who headlined at Dante’s for 30 years.

At first, Dante mused about a Mississippi paddle boat theme. The paddle steamer evolved into an 18th-century sailing ship.

Dante meant to transport his passengers to a small port village, maybe on the Mediterranean — apparently where it’s always evening and the town folk boil their food in bubbling oil.

He discovered fondue while traveling in Europe and liked the communal aspect of it — not to mention the novelty.

Dante’s Down the Hatch opened in 1970 and became the best known and most persistent of Underground’s establishments.

Eventually, Dante became Underground’s unofficial mayor. He presided over the merchants’ association and in the 1970s went to war against efforts to bolster the district with strip clubs.

As businesses evacuated downtown in the late 1970s, Underground began to fade. Its decline hastened as it gained a reputation for street crime. The construction of the MARTA Five Points station, which consumed part of the old district, was probably the final blow.

In 1981, Dante left Underground for Buckhead after three years of losses. In 1989, when the city rebuilt Underground into a shopping district, Dante reopened his Underground club and enjoyed a good run through the 1996 Olympics. In 1999, he closed it forever.

"I created that place from scratch," he said at the time. "Personally, closing it down is like killing my child."

3 Holds court over fondue

Four decades after peppering Holly and me with questions, Dante sits absorbing the answers from the 20-somethings antsy to experience a chocolate fondue while they still can.

They tell him they all go to Andy Stanley’s church. Stanley is the upbeat evangelist son of Charles Stanley, the powerful and influential Baptist minister.

“Since you’re not flaming Baptists, you can drink alcohol,” Dante observes, noticing the glasses of wine around the table.

He then launches into a rambling discourse on religion, relationships and wine — from the virtues of red wine to the hidden charms of German varietals. The Andy Stanley group listens patiently — you can almost hear them wondering if they should be taking notes.

“Even though you hear about red wine and chocolate, I don’t recommend red wine,” he advises. Of the many hallmarks in Dante’s style is his tendency to reveal some surprising truth about something about which you may have foolishly formed an opinion.

He probes their religious beliefs, apparently as a pretext to expound on his own. “You know, I’m a biblical archaeologist,” he says.

Puzzled looks.

“Personally, I lean toward pantheism,” he tells them.

He describes the religious artifacts that adorn the place, including repurposed Baptist church pews, a Spanish confessional, a Presbyterian pulpit and a rail on the lighthouse from a synagogue.

“People ask me why I have the Jews looking down on Christians,” he tells the group. “It’s easy — they came first.”

He expounds on topic after topic and finally turns to his lesson on chocolate. Whatever they thought they knew about chocolate was probably wrong. “Where does chocolate come from?” he finally asks, a half hour after sitting down.

He describes his chocolate in terms that a drug dealer might employ to sell the finest, purest heroin. The quality is the top half of the best 1 percent. His source — you imagine South American couriers carrying pouches — is secret. “If you ever experience anything as good or better somewhere else,” he tells them, “call me so I can burn it down.”

He reaches into his bag and produces a pod from the cacao tree. Inside the pod, which he shakes mariachi style, are the beans that yield chocolate.

Years ago Dante learned that folding the chocolate over heat deepens the flavor, so a cook must stand at the stove eight hours to make it properly. He suggests setting aside three hours to partake — a lifetime in a world always twitching to check the iPhone.

In time, the fondue arrives with a gargantuan platter of fruit and marshmallows. The 20-somethings let me sample. It’s, well, chocolate. Good chocolate, sweetened with Swiss honey and almonds, but still chocolate worthy of mere mortals.

It’s hard not to be let down a little.

But, what in the real world could match Dante’s illusion?

Not everybody is a fan. A February review on TripAdvisor cut deeply. “The fondue pots are the sterno kind and not only can be dangerous, but smell awful,” the reviewer wrote. “The soybean oil they use to cook the food in is also greasy and the mushrooms and squash were just saturated in grease when you ate them.”

But the deepest cut came when the reviewer dared praise the Melting Pot, the upstart fondue place in Midtown and Dante’s nemesis. Dante responded furiously. “With 43 years under our belt, we occasionally get strange or crank complaints, I agree that everyone has a right to their opinion, but this one tops them all.”

The oil, he retorted “is the most expensive and most PURE on the market. It was created for elite French chefs, (and) is NOT greasy or bad for us.”

He took particular exception to the familiar complaint about being refused the chocolate fondue on demand. “Our signature item, Chocolate Fondue ... must be planned WELL in ADVANCE and is NOT a dessert, it is a feast.

“My feelings are hurt, but I’ll get over it. We do NOT encourage spoiled brats to dine with us.”

He signed: "I will pray for her. Dante Stephensen, owner."

4 A deadline looms

Dante hasn’t easily embraced the idea of life without Dante’s. He spends 86 hours a week — not 85, mind you — at “The Hatch.”

We talked about this one night at a table on a small balcony overlooking the ship. A warm jazz serenade rises from inside the hull. “It’s very difficult for me, and people worry about what will happen to me,” he says “The Hatch is my wife. The staff are my children.”

He catches himself and resumes the optimism. “I have more hobbies and interests than I have time for,” he says cheerfully.” I still have a lot of energy and imagination. My desire to learn will probably save me.”

Last fall, he declared March 31 to be the end. But things had changed by January, when I stopped by. “March 31 is too soon,” he declared, sounding like an actor who can’t yet quit the stage. “I had the best December ever, and January looks great.”

If there is a breaking heart in there, Dante doesn’t show it. “I’m thinking of changing the name to Mohammed’s Down the Hatch and keeping up the going-out-of-business sale,” he jokes, making a reference to the carpet shops that once lined Peachtree Road.

But the pressure to sell — much of it coming from the managers who are part owners — mounts. One of Dante’s goals in the sale is to generate enough cash to take care of his family — the staff. The new — allegedly firm — closing date is July 31.

While Dante will talk your ear off on just about any topic, he permits only brief and guarded ventures into his uncertain future.

“I think this is a man thing,” he says. “I have a friend who was a high-level executive. He retired and died in six months.

“He died of loneliness.”

Carol French, Dante’s longtime assistant who keeps order in the chaos that is Dante’s office, says she isn’t worried. “He’s always going to find something to do,” she says. “He might just walk into a restaurant and start talking to people.”

The office will remain open for a while to wind down. "That'll keep him busy for a year," she says. "The first year will be hard for him, but there's so many things he can do." Even so, it's hard not to worry about the emptiness that awaits Dante. While Dante fulfilled his wish to create a place where young lovers proposed, it did not serve that role for him. After his divorce, he never remarried.

He has traveled extensively, and his walls are covered with photos of him posing with dignitaries and ordinary people. Yet, nowhere did I see Dante with a traveling companion.

I emailed one night asking him to name his best friend.

“Wow... that will take some intense thought,” he responded the next morning. “Let me ponder.”

His answer then rambles to reflect on a black playmate from his childhood, a story that morphs into a lament on segregation. After expressing admiration for his Nazi-fighting Danish grandfather, firemen, a college wrestling coach and his Navy Seal classmates, he identifies no intimate friend.

“I have many mentors,” he writes in conclusion. “It would take many more pages if I had the time.”

If Dante adheres to a central philosophy — among the many with which he is readily conversant — it would be Montessori. The educational theory developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori is built on the idea that children learn best in a framework of independence, freedom within limits and a respect for a child’s natural psychological development.

Dante sees himself as teacher and student. He credits his Underground inspiration to his Montessori training that urges creativity and focus.

His Montessori teacher was also his mother, Eva Sigrid, who seems to have been the single most influential force in his life. She was born in Copenhagen and studied directly under Maria Montessori in England before emigrating in 1928.

Eva Sigrid taught for more than 40 years before retiring. Dante’s father, George Shapiro, was a Ukrainian-born musician and conductor who died in the 1950s.

Dante’s mother was the Shapiro family’s governess in England until the death of his father’s first wife. They married in Chicago. Dante changed his name to Stephensen when he was young because he worried about anti-Semitism, even though Dante isn’t Jewish. He retained Shapiro as his middle name.

Dante brought his mother to Atlanta from Winnetka, Ill., in 1972. She became a familiar sight riding her bike through town.

“You know, my mother wrote a horoscope for Atlanta — it said Atlanta was a chosen city,” Dante tells me one night at the club.

What that means is hard now to pin down. Dante’s explanation offers little astrology, instead citing a litany of Atlanta’s earthly virtues — the climate, history, and perhaps most important to Dante’s deeply conservative beliefs, its standing as a right-to-work state.

For years, his mother prepared two cheesecakes a day to sell at her son's restaurant. She rode her bike until the age of 88 and died in 2007 at 102.

5 Creeping loneliness

Dante spends his nights beside a sailing ship; by day he travels by train.

On a 4.5-acre stand of trees — which he leases from the railroad — sits “The Survivor,” Dante’s home. The 87-year-old luxury rail car was built for the Woolworth family, and, naturally, it has a storied past. It provided a setting for Cary Grant to woo Barbara Hutton. Dante now shares it with Anya, his snow-white, 10-year-old dog.

He bought the car in 1982 to fulfill a childhood dream and has lived in it — or rather, slept in it — since. (He lives at the restaurant.)

Years ago, Dante could pay to hitch the car to a train and travel the country. But it hasn’t moved in years and is unlikely to move again.

To say it is cluttered is an understatement. Blue velvet drapes flank ornate leaded windows alongside cabinets of memorabilia — conductors’ hats from around the world, uniforms and bandannas and a collection of model steam engines. Old newspapers and every variety of stray paper adorn the furniture. Lining the narrow corridor leading past his snug bedroom are photographs of Dante with politicians and celebrities such as Jimmy Carter, James Schlesinger, Newt Gingrich, and Henry Kissinger — many of whom have visited him in the car.

It is a chilly day in March as we settle in The Survivor. An electric heater sits under Dante's chair. He wears a tie, having just returned from an Atlanta Rotary Club meeting. "I can hear the trains go by, and when I'm asleep, the car rocks just a hair, so I have the illusion of traveling, which is good," he says, working to light and sustain a pipe.

He sits for a moment, ever cheerful, but, for a moment, quiet. “This car satisfies my need to be alone,” he says, relighting his pipe.

Selling the restaurant presents Dante with difficult choices. On the one hand, he will gain the money and time to satisfy his wanderer’s spirit and explore the world. He’s thinking of checking out the unexplored islands of the Philippines.

On the other hand, he will lose his stage.

Early on, Dante talked about teaching a business class, maybe at Georgia State University. He sees his experience as the quintessential American success story. That idea — as with others — bloomed and faded.

He’s considered a new place and has hunted for a location, but nothing seems right.

Dante is slowly accepting the inevitable.

Yet, he recognizes what it means if he can’t find a new platform, particularly if he can’t find a way to interact with children. He will go on at length about what it means to him when children come into his restaurant. (He never had any of his own.)

I enjoy the attention the club brings me,” he says, puffing gently as The Survivor fills with smoke. “I like to hear people complimenting me on something I’ve created.

“My biggest problem is going to be, what do I do after working the floor seven days a week for 43 years?” he asks. “This place is my family structure. I already feel the loneliness — I break into tears periodically.”

Moreover, the club provides him a context to be everything he longs to be — a scientist, a teacher, a historian, a philosopher, a Biblical archaeologist and, perhaps most of all, an actor.

“In a way, I really am an actor,” he observes. “Every night I perform on this stage, every night I have an audience.”

Before I’m allowed to leave The Survivor, Dante selects an Irish conductor’s cap for me and hustles me to the car’s small balcony for the traditional snapshot.

It’s late in the day, and soon Dante must take the stage once again.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY How can we give readers value? That's a question that we ask often at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Today's Personal Journey answers it with a deeply reported story that includes history and context that only our reporter, Bert Roughton Jr., could offer. Roughton was among the first to experience Dante Stephensen's unique brand of entertainment when Dante's Down the Hatch first opened in the old Underground more than 40 years ago. For the AJC, Roughton wrote about major moments in Atlanta's history, including the rise and fall of Underground Atlanta where Dante reigned. That knowledge and context, acquired over 30 years of writing about our city, is the kind of value that's baked into the AJC every day. Enjoy today's story and send us your personal journey at Ken Foskett assistant managing editor

About the reporter

Bert Roughton Jr., managing editor and senior editorial director, has spent most of his 32-year career at the AJC as a reporter. In the 1990s, he covered Atlanta's bid for the 1996 Olympics and led the newspaper's reporting team that followed the city's preparations. He also was London correspondent for Cox Newspapers, covering the violence in Northern Ireland, the war in Kosovo and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. In 2000, he received a National Headliner Award for stories about the plight of AIDs orphans in Africa.

About the photographer

Bob Andres, a San Francisco native, worked as a photographer and editor for San Francisco- area newspapers before moving to Florida to be the photo director of the Tallahassee Democrat. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor.